We all know that listening to music changes our moods, and a lot of us listen to music all the time, when walking to work, shopping, even working in the office. But is the cognitive benefit still the same if we listen to music whilst performing a task? Are we hindering our work or everyday errands? How does listening to music we dislike affect our performance?
Researchers in Cardiff have found that listening to music that you enjoy whilst performing a serial recall task does not help performance any more than listening to music that you don't enjoy. The researchers made participants try to recall lists in presentation order whilst listening to five sound environments: quiet (with only occasional background sounds such as birdsong or nearby traffic), liked music previously chosen by the participant, disliked music (the track "Thrashers" by Death Angel which was incidentally disliked the most by all participants), changing-state vocals (a sequence of random digits spoken such as "4, 7, 1, 6") and steady-state vocal ("3, 3, 3"). Recall ability was equally poor for all music and changing-state vocal conditions. The most accurate recall occurred when participants performed the task in the quieter, steady-state environments. So regardless of whether they liked or hated the track, the music hindered their ability to remember items in the list.
This might be stating the obvious, but we maybe forget how much listening to music can distract us from what we are doing; the composers of supermarket or department store design it especially to distract us into forgetting what we are there for, to encourage us to mill around aimlessly in their shop for longer. I think that I studied for all of my exams with music playing; perhaps I ought to have done it in silence. I can only hope that the positive effect of listening to my favourite tracks counteracted any poor recall that I suffered.
Nick Perham, Joanne Vizard. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 2010; DOI:10.1002/acp.1731